What to watch for: IndyCar at Barber (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Live Extra)

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – It’s the end of the beginning of IndyCar 2015 this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, the second road course race of the season for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Here’s what to look for in today’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBC Sports Live Extra):

FOUR-FOR-FOUR?

After Juan Pablo Montoya, James Hinchcliffe and Scott Dixon, there’s pretty good chance of a fourth different driver becoming the fourth different winner in as many races this season. And fittingly, four of the top five on the grid are vying to be that single fourth.

Polesitter Helio Castroneves and Will Power make up the front row and look for their second and third Barber wins, respectively. Meanwhile teammate Simon Pagenaud seeks his first win as a member of Team Penske from P3 on the grid, and rising star Josef Newgarden looks for his first overall from P5.

Sixth through ninth (Tony Kanaan, Sebastien Bourdais, Graham Rahal and Luca Filippi) would also be the fourth different winner in as many races here. However, only once has the winner started outside the top three, Power from ninth in 2012 (third, first, ninth, first and third have been the starting positions of winners the previous five Barber races).

BATTLE OF THE MARCHING THREE-LETTER ACRONYMS

JPM and RHR will be the two to watch after rough qualifying outings on Saturday.

Montoya starts from P15, and Ryan Hunter-Reay from P18 as they look to carve through the field, or at least salvage something of their days. It will likely take a strategy play from either or both of them to make it into win contention.

CHANGING TRACK CONDITIONS

Both practice sessions were cool and overcast today, before the beat-the-clock style qualifying later Saturday afternoon. It was a hectic day from start to finish.

However with a warmer, sunnier day expected for Sunday, it remains to be seen whose car will work better in the different conditions. Rare are warmups that important, but today’s certainly fit the bill. Dixon led the way ahead of Power, Pagenaud, Castroneves and Kanaan.

SLEEPERS, ROOKIES AND COMEBACKS?

Any non-Penske or Ganassi podium-finishing drivers – given five of the top six on the grid are from those two teams – would be surprising.

Newgarden would be a popular podium finisher if he can pull it off, while a Rahal or Filippi podium could be possible if the strategy works out.

Elsewhere watch Ganassi’s two American drivers, Charlie Kimball and Sage Karam, who roll off from 11th and 12th and could factor into things. Kimball is something of a Barber specialist and Karam, who injured his wrist in a testing accident here last month, is making progress after a ragged two races to open his season.

The other driver to watch is Marco Andretti, who is another solid Barber driver but had another challenging qualifying effort. He’ll start 13th.

Honda drivers desperately need a good race in their sponsored race, but it might be tough sledding. Chevrolet drivers have 10 of the top 12 grid positions and in the dry, Honda’s drivers have seemed to have little to match.

STARTING GRID

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

MORE: McLaren considering Kyle Busch for Indy 500

“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”